Each of these headaches usually display some degree of neck pain or tenderness and head pain. There can be a great deal of overlap due to referral pains between the head and neck. This referral is the result of the head and neck sharing the same nervous system pathways. This also makes it common for people to have combination headaches; e.g. a migraine turning into a tension headache.
Tension headaches are the most common and are characterized as a tightness around the head. It is usually dull or achy and in the back of the head near the base of the skull. It can refer to the sides and even front the head as well. With a tension headache, the pain is almost always on both sides of the head. The neck muscles are usually tender in the upper neck as a result of increased sensitivity. Stress is a major trigger and often times these headaches are worse in the late afternoon and early evening.
Migraines are notorious for being extremely painful, to the point of causing nausea and vomiting in some cases. These are usually pulsating or throbbing and on one side of the head. They usually start to occur during childhood or early adulthood and are recurring. Sometimes there are stages, however, not everyone experiences the following. The first stage can sometimes be mood changes, food cravings, changes with bowel or urination, and a stiff neck. The second stage can possibly include visual changes such as blind spots, flashing lights, zig zag lines, or tingling in the arms or legs. Finally the migraine headache portion, which can last between 4-72 hours. Many times there is also a sensitivity to lights and or noise. The last stage, known as a migraine hangover can consist of feeling tired, weak and difficulty with concentrating.
Treatments for tension headaches and migraines can be similar, however migraines are a little more involved. For both of these, stress management can be very helpful. Techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, and cognitive behavioral therapy are good for stress. Additionally, good routines in regard to sleep, nutrition and exercises is important.
These headaches are also commonly treated by some types of chiropractors. Myofascial release can especially be great for people suffering from tension headaches. Posture training through the correct stretches and exercises is also helpful. Finally, because these headaches both have a stress component, acupuncture has been a successful treatment for many as well.
The last one on the list is cervicognic headaches. These are definite referral headaches from the neck. There is usually a mechanical neck issue resulting in neck pain and limited movement of the neck. A major difference from tension headaches is that these are often one sided headaches. A hallmark feature of these is that certain neck movements or head positions will create neck pain. Successful treatment for these are spinal manipulation, stretches, massages and rehabilitation.
Although the majority of headaches are not life-threatening there are some red flags to be aware of. If you are experiencing a new and especially abrupt or severe headache you should seek medical attention immediately. Additional red flags: a chronic headache that is worse with exertion or straining, neurological symptoms such as numbing or weakness in the face or double vision, Headache with fever, and a new headache if over the age of 50.